Smooshed: Labor, Boundaries and Roles Under COVID-19
In light of recent events, I did what many digital citizens would do: I wrote a thread on Twitter.
There are lots of pieces to this and I doubt that I can bring them together again more concisely than in this thread but there are a couple of points I would like to add. Including a related tweet:
A dear friend sent me a recent article in The Atlantic that expresses some of my concerns about the distinct ways in which women are impacted by the pandemic. As a title, “The Coronavirus Is A Disaster For Feminism,” really says it all. London based journalist Helen Lewis documents what researchers have learned from previous epidemics in recent memory about their lingering negative effect on women’s lives and notes with the onset of Coronavirus, the unwillingness of governments around the globe to act on that specific knowledge. About the current decisions being faced by couples in the West she writes:
The coronavirus smashes up the bargain that so many dual-earner couples have made in the developed world: We can both work, because someone else is looking after our children. Instead, couples will have to decide which one of them takes the hit.
And ‘taking the hit’ seems to be the correct term. In this opinion piece, Xanthe Scharff in Time Magazine describes in greater detail the multiple ways in which low income women and single mothers in this stage of Coronavirus spread face a disproportionately high likelihood of job loss and/or becoming infected. Due to limited worker protections like paid sick or child care leave, many women have to give up work in order to care for others. Women constitute 92% of nurses in the US and are most often the ones to care for family members who fall ill which means they are more likely to be exposed to the virus. Along the class spectrum it seems evident that during this pandemic women are expected to pick up slack, even when their hands are more than full. Tasked with holding down the fort, we necessarily rise to the occasion.
In my own field of education, I am observing the way many of us teacher-parents come to terms with a new set of expectations: to teach our classes and take care of our children all while maintaining a functional household that provides meals, order and comfort.
It means something that this ad from 1979 is stuck in my head:
One of the challenges of this moment is having to recognize the very gendered expectations I hold of myself. As I acknowledge how strongly this ad still rings in my ears, there can be no doubt that the anchoring of such notions runs deep. I see it in the way I sense guilt when the kitchen remains covered in mealtime debris but I need to go approve 30 more SeeSaw posts. I notice it in the way I feel compelled to insure that my 12 year old peels himself away from one screen or another after a couple of hours and that I need to provide the direct alternative. I experience in the way that none of these tasks ever seems fully separate from the others. They become smooshed. In the current state, I am practicing smooshed labor.
My boundaries around “work” dissolve as all kinds of work apply — school work, parenting work, housework. None of these categories enjoys any special protections now. They share location, actor and variable prioritization.
In the thread I talk about the connection between teachers’ love of students and our fears around proving our worth. We go the extra mile as a way to be clear about our level of care and commitment. In this new context of teaching from home, another few layers of love and fear are piled on top, creating a challenging set of circumstances for anyone to navigate, let alone folks facing a global pandemic that is bringing huge portions of the economy to a startling halt.
Audrey Watters addresses this in her recent newsletter:
You might have all the equipment — all the licenses to all the products and all the content lined up. Your students might have all the equipment to watch, listen, chat back. But we are in the middle of a global health crisis, a global economic crisis; we are in the middle of millions of individual health crises, millions of individual economic crises. This is not going to be a great time for teaching and learning, no matter how carefully you’ve orchestrated your online courses.
“This is not going to be a great time for teaching and learning…” We need to sit with that and examine our own realities and the unfolding context. Technology can help us but it is not going to save us.
When I consider all the things we individually and collectively are having to contend with just trying to keep body and soul together, I really want to shake us and remind our teacher and parenting selves that content is not the thing that matters most for any of us right now. Showing up, being present, being kind, being patient, being compassionate — these are the things we need most today, yesterday and definitely tomorrow.